Jenny Slate has an amazing laugh. It’s bubbly, infectious, and a shining star when she performs on stage. “I’m my biggest fan I guess,” she says through one particularly raucous giggle fit that seems to take her by surprise. Slate’s laughter feels so genuine and earned every time it squeaks out, that it becomes impossible not to laugh along with her. And of course it doesn’t hurt that everything she says and the way she says it is worthy of every laugh we can give her.
There’s not another stand-up special that immediately comes to mind where the person on stage is enjoying not just themselves, but their punchlines as much as Slate does during Stage Fright, her first-ever stand-up special streaming now on Netflix. Where some textbook comedy specials fall flat because of over-rehearsed jokes or stiffness, Stage Fright succeeds because it oozes authenticity, thanks in part to a combination of Slate’s overwhelming joy and a display of deep vulnerability. Directed by Slate’s frequent collaborator Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child, Landline), it alternates between a live stand-up set filmed at the Gramercy Theatre, footage from Slate’s childhood, and interviews with her family in the house where she grew up. The result is a heartwarming, hilarious, and revealing hour that encapsulates all the good and bad that have made Jenny, Jenny.
Slate bursts onto the stage with the energy of a kid who just had candy for the first time, throwing her whole body into dancing and lip-syncing along to “Missing U” by Robyn for just a little longer than whoever was running sound was expecting, clearly soaking in the moment. That high energy and spontaneity continues throughout the next hour, raising the question of whether any of Slate’s opening remarks about her outfit, the crowd, and her mindset that day were planned, especially when she didn’t even introduce herself or really make clear why everyone was gathered until 10 minutes in. But the “why” hardly matters, because it’s impossible to look away once Slate steps on stage.
The energy drops only slightly when cutting to documentary-style shots of Slate talking with her family and looking through her childhood bedroom. The speed of the cuts between Slate on stage and Slate at home is a bit jarring at first, in part because every moment both on stage and off is so delightful that it would be nice to live in each of those moments just a little bit longer. But it soon becomes clear that those cutaway moments are truly in service to every joke and story Slate tells on stage. When she talks about growing up in a haunted house, she’s not exaggerating for a bit—her sisters and father step in via interviews to tell some genuinely chilling stories about ghost sightings in their home. Before there’s enough time to sit in the spookiness, the special cuts back to Slate on stage, using her wonderfully nuanced physicality to impersonate each of the ghosts she encountered while growing up. With this format, we’re not just hearing the joke, we’re in on it.
Slate’s most emotional and vulnerable moments are some of the most compelling. While in her childhood bedroom she reads through a collection of papers she kept in a box of “bad things” and it’s funny and sad and relatable in the way reading an old diary dredges up all those emotions. And it’s revealing in such a way that Slate’s former tormentors might have reason to be concerned that they’ll earn the wrath of her fans. Then back on stage, Slate tells jokes about her divorce, and when she says it’s the first time she’s said these things out loud to a room full of people, it’s easy to believe that’s true.
The final documentary clips spliced in are of Slate preparing to take the stage. “I don’t earn the love unless something beautiful goes out,” Slate says, tearing up. “My stage fright comes from a deeper thing of exchange.” One of her greatest fears in this particular moment, she says, is that she’ll be too nervous about earning that love to have fun while doing it. In the end, Slate is having a blast, and knowing that makes the laughs she shares with us along the way all the more delightful.